Who Is Aharon Lichtenstein?
Introducing the extraordinary rabbi who next week will receive Israel’s highest honor.
Among this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, is the eminent thinker and educator Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. To those many Jews in Israel and elsewhere who are acquainted with or have been touched by his life and work, this award, to be conferred on May 6, Independence Day, will signify one of those rare instances when government committees get things right.
In America, where he was raised and educated, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s name is bound to resonate much more faintly. Within the Orthodox community, it may be familiarly known that he is the leading sage of “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy; that he holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard; that he is clean-shaven; and that he is the son-in-law of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the towering figure widely regarded as the founder of modern Orthodoxy. In other Jewish circles, most will have never even heard of him. In mentioning his name a few years ago, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg cited “Orthodox informants” to the effect that the rabbi was “quite the genius of Jewish law” and a “great dude of halakhah.”
With this in mind, my goal here is less to summarize his achievement, a daunting and ultimately futile task, than to offer a portrait of the man sufficient to motivate readers to learn more. (A place to begin might be the online bibliography of his myriad published essays, books, and lectures.)
Aharon Lichtenstein was born in Paris in 1933. Eight years later, his family fled Vichy France to the United States on visas arranged by the courageous American diplomat Hiram Bingham, Jr. After brief stops in Baltimore, where the young boy was already recognized as a prodigy of traditional learning, and then Chicago, they settled in New York in 1945. There he entered a yeshiva before his bar mitzvah and subsequently went on to undergraduate studies and rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University (YU). The following years, spent studying English literature at Harvard, were crucial to the development of his particular strain of religious humanism; Boston also afforded the opportunity to study closely with his future father-in-law.
Upon returning to YU in a teaching capacity, Rabbi Lichtenstein oversaw the rabbinical school’s program for its most advanced students. Then, in 1971, he accepted an offer to join with Rabbi Yehuda Amital in heading a new yeshiva south of Jerusalem in the Etzion Bloc (in Hebrew, Gush Etzion, with Gush pronounced goosh as in “push”). He has been there ever since. Formally known as Yeshivat Har Etzion but universally called “the Gush,” the school represents his (and Rabbi Amital’s) vision for the role of the yeshiva as a unique educational institution within Jewish society; it is perhaps his greatest legacy.
Increasing in stature and influence over the decades, the Gush and its satellite initiatives are famous for providing an open, intellectually curious, and non-dogmatic alternative to other Israeli yeshivas. This is no accident; having spent virtually his entire adult life within the yeshiva world, Rabbi Lichtenstein believes that, properly conceived and managed, these schools can be places not only for single-minded devotion to talmudic excellence but also for the development of moral character and leadership. In his holistic vision, the moral goal is not self-mastery or ascetic self-discipline (as in some yeshivas of old) but, to the contrary, well-roundedness and other-directedness.
The same moral vision explains Rabbi Lichtenstein’s readiness to cite sources outside the Jewish tradition that, even as they complement and support the uniquely Jewish system of values and virtues, are reminders that immersion in Torah must not come at the expense of universal responsibilities. The thinkers to whom he regularly returns—Matthew Arnold, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and F. H. Bradley, to name only a few—are precisely those who best articulate how to combine a life of devotion with fruitful engagement in the outside world, an alien and sometimes problematic reality.
Of course, this is not to say that moral and religious development takes priority in his mind over his students’ intellectual growth and erudition. For one thing, he views the two spheres not as distinct but as interrelated. For another and more important thing, Rabbi Lichtenstein is staunchly within the Lithuanian rabbinic tradition that views Talmud study as the ultimate religious act, a merging of the minds of God and man.
As a talmudist, Rabbi Lichtenstein is a proponent of the “Brisker” method, for which his wife’s family is renowned. In this pedagogical approach, legal disputes or contradictions within the Talmud may be understood by analyzing the logical or “conceptual” underpinnings that account for the divergent rabbinic rulings under examination. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s hands, the method has been further abstracted so that it can be employed at the very outset of any exercise in talmudic analysis.
Brisker-type interrogations thus become hermeneutical keys, to be tested in a variety of settings. Does a given rule require the attainment of a particular result, or does it mandate a specific act? Is a particular rabbinic enactment an expansion of a biblical law, or a separate institution? Does a speech-act hinge on the technical or the commonsense meaning of the words uttered? Taking the metaphor of “key” questions still further, Rabbi Lichtenstein has spoken of developing a “key ring”: the more keys on a student’s ring, the more talmudic “locks” can be opened, and the larger and more complex become the conceptual structures within which one assimilates talmudic data.
This mode of discourse can be discerned in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s non-legal thinking as well. His treatment of “The Universal Duties of Mankind,” for example, begins with Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it (l’ovdah) and to guard it (l’shomrah).” He then abstracts these two verbal charges as fundamental yet distinct and often competing categories of mankind’s duties toward the world, to which the remainder of the essay is devoted:
Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “l’shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it—and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage. . . .
At the same time, there is the task of “l’ovdah” (to cultivate it), which is essentially creative: to develop, to work, to innovate.
I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general.
This example also typifies another salient feature of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: a frank acknowledgment of the tension and equivocation between competing claims. Numerous demands are made on one devoted to the path of Torah, demands that must be ordered within a hierarchy of values and then implemented in life. Neglect of even a trivial demand can denote failure to maintain proper balance, a flaw in one’s discharge of his duties. In an essay in this vein, Rabbi Lichtenstein articulates the desired ordering of study of Torah with the duty to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Clearly, the resulting approach to life is itself very demanding. But it can also be characterized as both moderate and balanced: moderate not because it shuns extremes, but because it embraces competing extremes; balanced not because it stands on many legs at once but because it seeks a subtle equilibrium that will allow one to remain upright amid the swirl of external forces.
It is also an approach that countless students have found inspiring and life-changing. And that is because Rabbi Lichtenstein, in addition to being its master exponent, is also its greatest role model. Far from flamboyant or charismatic, he is shy and unpretentious to the point of sometimes seeming aloof. But that impression is deceptive: a video produced in honor of his 80th birthday includes footage in which he is pictured doing the dishes, in a rowboat, playing with his children and grandchildren. The canonical stories about him do not recount his genius or erudition but his humility: answering the yeshiva’s public phone with a simple “Aaron speaking,” or, after students in an army classroom have all fallen asleep, continuing an involved talmudic lecture so as to allow them to get some much-needed rest.
Such stories abound. They may help to explain why, in the end, his many disciples can only describe him by speaking personally of what he has meant to them. And so I will now proceed to do.
In recent years, the Orthodox spirit in Israel and the U.S. has suffered shock after shock. Leading and respected rabbis have been exposed as frauds, bigots, or manipulators entangled in political jockeying for plum appointments. Other renowned figures have been revealed as racists, plagiarists, protectors of sexual predators, abusers of power. Intellectual and moral lightweights have promoted themselves as Orthodoxy’s exponents and arbiters, influencers and opinion-makers.
All this has had a traumatic effect. Every saint who turns out to be a sinner further erodes the bulwarks of religious commitment. Was it, we wonder, only ever thus? Were our revered rabbis and sages always so petty, self-absorbed, and power-hungry?
On May 10, 2013, among the 1,500-some students who gathered to celebrate Rabbi Lichtenstein’s 80th birthday with him, I experienced a powerful restorative of my faith in God and in the Torah transmitted to us through the generations. To adapt a Shakespearean tag favored by Rabbi Lichtenstein (though never to describe himself), I was reminded that one figure doth bestride this phalanx of fallen saints and discredited chief rabbis like a colossus, his erudition fully matched by his humility and humanity, and by the harmonious balance and wholesomeness of his life. Such multifaceted greatness is wholly unattainable by me, but acquaintance with it helps me believe that such paragons of service to the Almighty have existed in the past and will continue to exist in the future.
This may seem a strange basis for faith. Can one’s faith in God and in the halakhic tradition really be rooted in love and reverence for a human being? Is it appropriate for a fellow human to be treated as an object of reverence in the first place?
According to the Talmud (Pesahim 22b), the answer is yes: reverence for Torah scholars is indeed an extension of reverence for God, their greatness being a reflection and refraction of His. The same idea is developed in a 1996 article by Rabbi Lichtenstein himself.
The article is about his mentors, and he begins by quoting the first line of Matthew Arnold’s sonnet “To a Friend”: “Who prop, thou ask’st in these bad days, my mind?” About this formulation of Arnold’s he comments that, “In my case, at least, the critical factor is indeed ‘who’ rather than ‘what,’” and he proceeds to describe how three men—Rabbis Aharon Soloveichik, Yitzhak Hutner, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik—constitute, in part, the source and grounding of his faith in God and the Jewish tradition.
As for my own feelings of gratitude toward Rabbi Lichtenstein, they are well expressed in another passage in Arnold’s poem:
But be his/ My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul/ . . . saw life steadily, and saw it whole.
The same feelings are expressed, most beautifully, in words of the Psalms (84:6) that in the original are clearly addressed to God. In singing them, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students are altogether right to have in mind, as well, their peerless guide and mentor:
Ashrei adam oz lo bakh
Fortunate the person who finds strength through you.